LOWER MERION >> Plain and simple, Upper Dublin’s success is predicated on its defense.
This season the Cardinals have limited teams to 30 points or less on 16 occasions. They hit that magic threshold again Tuesday night.
Whether it’s a sifling man or some variation of zone, the Cardinals know how to bring the heat. Just ask Cardinal O’Hara, the Catholic League and District 12 champion and one of the favorites to win the PIAA Class 6A championship before the tournament began. O’Hara had no answer for what Upper Dublin was throwing at them in last Friday’s first-round contest and now the No. 1 team in Delaware County is sitting at home.
“We believe we’re never out of a game because of our defense,” Upper Dublin coach Morgan Funsten said Tuesday at Harriton High, moments after his team stormed back from the abyss with a stellar second half to defeat Garnet Valley, 39-29. Upper Dublin advances to the elite eight of the PIAA Class 6A tournament Friday to face another District 1 foe in Abington.
Even when the Cardinals looked lost in the second quarter, they could count on their defense. District 1’s ninth-place team seemed timid to shoot outside or drive against Garnet Valley, District 1’s third-place finisher. For the Cardinals, the results were ugly in that quarter: 0-for-11 from the floor, five turnovers, zero points.
Garnet Valley led by six points at halftime, and appeared to have UD’s number, but it could have been much worse for Upper Dublin. The Cardinals couldn’t penetrate against Garnet Valley bigs Brianne Borcky, Emily McAteer, Madi Mckee and Liesl Dentinger.
In some ways, Garnet Valley replicated what Upper Dublin’s defense accomplished against Cardinal O’Hara last Friday night.
“Their zone had us a little bit off our rhythm in the first half,” senior guard Nicole Kaiser said. “And with their length, it was difficult to make any kind of passes.”
But something clicked in the locker room. The word Funsten repeated to his players was “grind.”
“We knew what we were able to do the previous game against O’Hara,” Kaiser said. “So we came out in the second half with a lot more fire. And we were more patient, more disciplined on defense.”
Five seconds into the third quarter, freshman Dayna Balasa, who scored a game-high 14 points, made one of her four 3-point field goals to cut Garnet Valley’s lead to four points.
“We needed to be more aggressive, but most of all we needed to play smarter,” said sophomore center Jackie Vargas, who did a lot of damage on both ends in the second half. “They were bigger than us and I know we had to play smarter, especially since I was in foul trouble a little bit.”
It’s no coincidence that when Vargas was forced to sit in the second quarter, Garnet Valley gained the lead. Dentinger, a power forward, came off the bench to contribute three points and two rebounds for GV. While the Cardinals were missing shots and turning the ball over, the Jags slowly built a six-point lead. But Garnet Valley never pulled away, as it shot just 2 for 7 from the floor in the second quarter and committed four turnovers.
Once Balasa, one of two freshmen in the Upper Dublin lineup, hit the first 3-ball of the second half, the Cardinals were off and running. Garnet Valley senior Nicole Barnes answered with a 3-pointer, but the Jags would go the next 11 minutes without a field goal. Layups from Jess Polin and Vargas gave the Cardinals a 23-22 edge at the end of the third quarter.
Balasa hit another trey to put the Cardinals ahead 26-22 with 4:10 to go. Vargas was left all alone under the basket on an inbound pass near the Upper Dublin bench. On the ensuing GV possession, Vargas got a steal and was fouled en route to the basket. She hit both free throws to put Upper Dublin in front, 30-23.
All told, Upper Dublin used a 17-3 run in the second half to bury the Jags.
Jillian Nagy scored all seven of the Jags’ points in the fourth quarter. After Barnes’ 3-pointer in the third period, Garnet didn’t score again until Nagy made two foul shots with 1:31 left in regulation.
“I feel like they got used to our defense and they switched things up,” said Nagy, who had seven points, two rebounds and one steal off the bench. “Going into the second half, we thought we got this and maybe we got a little too confident that we can win the game.”
Garnet Valley’s top scorers, McAteer and Borcky, were held scoreless in the second half on 0-for-7 shooting. McAteer started hot, scoring seven of her team-high nine points in the first quarter. Borcky (four points, six rebounds, one block) never got going.
“I can’t say enough about Maggie Weglos’ (five points, six assists, one steal) defense on Borcky,” Funsten said. “She held her to two points in the first quarter on an offensive rebound, but nothing after that.
“Nicole Kaiser played McAteer really well. We pride ourselves on defense and I thought, once again, we didn’t really give them anything. We were able to make some big shots and executed some of our offensive stuff and got some easy shots.”
Upper Dublin shot 7-for-13 in the second half. For the game the Cardinals went 6 of 20 from 3-point distance and had 11 assists on 12 field goals. Vargas added 10 points, two assists, two steals and three blocks. Freshman Jess Polin, who was the hero in UD’s first-round win, chipped in with eight points.